Prioritize Joyful Teaching and Learning in Virginia Public Schools

Courtesy Success Academies

by James C. Sherlock

Sometimes things are so right in front of you that you look past them.

I have been studying public education in Virginia for more than 15 years.

The policy face of the teaching and learning is — there is no other word for it — depressing, at least to the degree that those policies as written can be decoded into English.

Especially when our schools’ processes are constantly re-engineered at the behest of the education establishment. Teachers and students struggle to adjust to policies that are said to “work” in small, targeted studies but prove after enormous effort and expense not to scale as predicted. Or they work in the best schools and not in the worst.

At the federal level, the VDOE level, the ed school level and the local school division level, policies are frenetically changed to clean up problems real or perceived.

Virtually no solution I have seen focuses on enhancing the joys of teaching and learning.

The best individual schools in Virginia can and many certainly do focus on joy. But that is not what they are told to do. And clearly many don’t do it.

It is no wonder SOL scores in many schools continue to be dismal, teachers and students quit and students are chronically absent in droves.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Why does joy matter? Success Academy (S/A) non-profit charter management organization this year will educate approximately 20,000 kids in New York City. The students are disproportionately minority (94%) and poor (80%). If it were its own school division, S/A would have been for years the top rated school division in the state based upon Regents Exams.

In April of 2015, when they educated 14,000, a random lottery was held for the 2,300 open seats in their schools. There were 22,000 applications.

For those of us who have wondered what the secret sauce of Success Academies is, it is “hidden” on the home page.

What sets us apart — Passion-driven learning.

Sparking each child’s enthusiasm for learning is at the core of everything we do. We are committed to fostering an exciting environment where kids can deepen their curiosity and grow into confident, self-directed adults.

Those are the only words on that page.

Passion-driven learning need not set them apart from Virginia public schools.

The education establishment. What it will take first and foremost is a shift of attitudes and goals of the Virginia public school education establishment. By reading their work, you could be forgiven for thinking they need to get a life.

They can usefully take up the mantra of joyful teaching and learning and direct their efforts to those ends.

The Board of Education’s Vision expressed in its 2018-23 Comprehensive Plan

The vision of the Board of Education and Superintendent of Public Instruction, in cooperation with their partners, is to create an excellent statewide system of public education that derives strength from diversity and that ensures equity of opportunity for each student in a safe and healthy learning environment that prepares all students to be capable, responsible, and self-reliant citizens in the global society.

That’s it. Apparently no one needs to have fun.

Do what I just did. Go to the VDOE website and search the term “joy of learning.”    

Sorted by relevance by my search engine, the results begin with a 2002 memo from the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction on the subject of Disneys American Teacher Awards. 

The rest are equally insipid.

Go to Virginia Tiered Systems of Support. The same search for “joy of learning” will lead you to discover that:

Cal State Fullerton African American studies professor Mei-Ling Malone explains: “Black joy is an act of resistance. The whole idea of oppression is to keep people down. So when people continue to shine and live fully, it is resistance in the context of our white supremacist world.”

Certainly helpful.

I will largely spare you the results from the UVa and Virginia Tech ed school page searches.

A few events at UVa from that search are in the sorry-we-missed-them category, but I could not bring myself to include them in the text of this article.

Tech had one item that addressed the issue of joy of learning. An interview with a grad student. Take a look. She is heartening.

Bottom line. Joy — Success Academy’s “passion-driven learning” — should be established as a major goal of our public schools. No new bureaucracy or paperwork need be involved (thank God).

It starts with principals, teachers and parents asking teachers and students if they had fun today. Regardless of the answer, ask why. Share the answers with your school’s administration. They can set up pages restricted to employees and parents on their web sites to accept them. And learn from them.

If the learning climates of our schools can be made even a little more joyous each year, they will increasingly thrive.

  • Better student conduct will follow.
  • Joyful kids are not needlessly absent.
  • Joyful learners learn.
  • Joyful teachers seldom quit for reasons of stress. The entire profession will be more attractive.

Joy won’t solve all of the issues, but right now appears to be a path not taken in many schools and certainly in the education establishment.

Take it.

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30 responses to “Prioritize Joyful Teaching and Learning in Virginia Public Schools”

  1. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Is that like a “joyful noise”? Raw onions on my burger produces those.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Bad timing on trying to be funny.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        The floggings will continue until joy is accomplished?

        The man said, “And the truth shall set you free.” Unhappy maybe, but free.

  2. MisterChips Avatar

    Yeah.. Exactly. It can be hard but shouldn’t be miserable. Unfortunately joy and curiosity and love of learning aren’t in the SOL curriculum.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Amen to that.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Good teachers are professionals who INSPIRE kids to love to read and learn. They do this even when they got folks claiming they are “grooming” and teaching CRT and should be “reported” on “tip lines”, etc….

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    No joy?! No joy in teaching?! How could there possibly be no joy among those who are paid peanuts, are forced to work in substandard conditions as they take care of our kids, and hope mommy and daddy doesn’t yell in their face for saying that gay people are human, or heaven forbid, that slavery really existed?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      the irony is thick, almost congealed.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Teachers strike. And yes, every strike involves pay** and benefits, especially now in the face of inflation, but look at the secondary conditions — they almost always involve joy-producing demands like AC to keep classrooms below 90 degrees, supplies, or more access to special education programs.

        Captain says he’s for joy in teaching. I wonder if he has ever written a piece in support of the teachers rights to strike? Nope! But he has blasted CRT and other things about which he knows nothing. NOTHING! Nothing is beyond his ire, e.g., how and where kids evacuate their bowels, or their nicknames.

        ** in 25 years, after adjusting for inflation, teachers’ salaries increased a whopping $29 weekly.

  4. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    So Nancy and Larry jump on an article about trying to make teaching and learning joyful, especially because it is proven to work.

    Nancy seems particularly worked up.

    He changes the subject to demanding a right for public employees to strike. That works so well in Chicago, who would not want it here?

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      If they would ever let the teachers run the school, I think you would find a return to joyful teaching. The very best colleagues I knew brought this to the classroom every day.

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        I believe you are right.

        Remembering back decades to when I went to grade school and high school, teachers ran the schools. They had to.

        My elementary school’s entire management and administrative staff during the school day consisted of a principal, one of the smartest and most capable persons I have still ever met, and her secretary.

        My Jesuit high school had a headmaster with no AP’s, but he had a Prefect of Discipline to run what I guess today would be called a multi-level disciplinary support system. Teachers, all men, handled conduct issues. If he thought the issue required emphasis, he turned it over to the Prefect for detention. If detention did not work, there were suspension and expulsion.

        The teachers ran everything else. For better or worse. I think mostly for better.

        1. “Jesuit… Prefect of Discipline… If detention did not work, there were suspension and expulsion.” There’s a recipe for Joy, expulsion is a path to escape the Jesuits.

          As Nancy noted above, “The beatings will continue until joy is accomplished.” Jesuits, storm troopers of repression since Galileo.

          Joy, Joy and more Joy.

          You make a case for bettering our school systems in your post, but suck all the joy out of it here in the comments.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        The teachers are not going to want to operate the cafeteria or fix the HVAC or recruit new teachers and principals when vacancies open up. They not going to want to run the school buses or coordinate with the Sheriff for SROs or try to figure out how health care and pension benefits work or implement changes in the school calendar, etc, etc,

        You need the support and administrative positions for the teachers and principals to be free of these things and concentrate on their core duties.

        Many folks say this but in the real world, you need these other folks – they actually have work that must be done if teachers are going to have time to do their jobs.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Particularly poignant coming from someone who stoked cynicism and anger for the last two years.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        yeah… has an Ebenezer Scrooge smell to it.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Don’t expect a similar outcome. Scrooge had redeeming qualities.

      2. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        I have stoked pretty consistent anger in you, Nancy, and some of your fellow leftist trolls. I’d say that means I have struck all the right notes. Mission accomplished.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          actually the real trolling starts with your posts…. usually..

          1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
            James C. Sherlock

            Larry, you have to ask yourself why you wait breathlessly for the next post on this blog. You are here to get outraged and express it, endlessly. You are inexhaustible in that quest. We provide a service. You are welcome.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            outraged? au contraire! You misunderstand! 😉

            try again Capt. try harder!

    3. LarrytheG Avatar

      where did I talk about striking? I just think it’s funny as heck after months of you hammering on public education and teachers that you now want “joy”. sheesh.

  5. I would submit that there is a direct correlation between the level of sensitivity training, bureaucratic meddling, and paperwork that a teacher experiences and and the level of joy he or she enjoys in the classroom. If a teacher is required to be ever mindful of a vast array of rules and regulations, there is little room for spontaneity, creativity and joy.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Like in charter schools? A five-year 25% closure rate is a little better than restaurant job security.

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    Too much re-engineering = too much management. Sounds like a 20% RIF of non-teaching administrative positions is in order.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Good start.

  7. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    Don’t know whether the author has visited Success Academy in NYC’s Harlem or at any time during 15 years of study. Yet, an equation of a web page statement asserting SA’s intention to “sparking a child’s enthusiasm” is made to joy of learning and/or teaching.

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